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Becoming an Athlete: Diary of My First Gay Games

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Victoria Stagg Elliott

The first in a two-part series.

A year and a half in the planning. Thousands of dollars spent. Thousands of miles traveled. Hours and hours of training. One feather boa. Hundreds of rhinestones. 10 yards of sequins. Two swimsuits. One rented bicycle.

And it's all over now, at least until 2006 when the Gay Games will flower again in Montreal.

I signed up for swimming events at the Gay Games in March of 2001, just when registration opened. I was itching for a big trip, and this was an excuse to travel to Australia, a country I'd never been to, and an opportunity to swim in the fastest pool in the world--the same pool that hosted the 2000 summer Olympics, where records fell one by one.

My primary sport is swimming, and I've swum in pools and natural bodies of water all over the world. But why travel thousands of miles just to swim 50 meters even if it is in the fastest pool in the world? I promptly signed up for the triathlon, even though I'd never done one before, and managed to talk the organizers of the figure skating to create a beginner's category for me. I'm not the most comfortable person on skates, but I like a challenge.

In the year and a half working up the Games, I completed my first triathlon and bought a triathlon suit, a unitard-like outfit that combines biking shorts with a swimsuit. I hired a figure skating coach and learned how to sew on sequins and rhinestones in order to create a costume. I acquired a taste for energy drinks, recovery drinks, protein drinks and energy gels.

I was ready.

October 28: Arrive Sydney.

I'd been told by one of my team mates who arrived a few days before that Australian customs is extremely strict and that they get very pissy if you do not declare all food even the packets of energy gel and recovery drink powder which isn't really food. I attempt to declare these items as food which gives the customs agent a good laugh, and he waves me through.

I meet my first serious athlete. He's attempting to get his bicycle through customs while Australia is trying to prevent the importation of foot-and-mouth disease. They want a good look at the dirt on the wheels and are threatening to put it in a chemical bath. I inform him that I'm renting a bicycle, and he sneers that, of course, he's bringing his own. "It's a race," he says.

This is part of what makes the Gay Games special. Serious hard-core athletes compete on the same field with not-so-serious dilatants like me.

The great myth of the Gay Games is that you need to qualify to compete. The reality is that all you need is MasterCard or Visa, although they may also take American Express. A good time on the 50meter backstroke is not enough. There is a small minority of people who consider themselves to be "real" athletes while the rest of us are just playing. The truth of the matter is that unless you're making a living at sports or aiming to do so, we are all just playing. Most, no matter how good they are, realize that.

I check into the hotel, and head to the accreditation center. It's a sign of things to come. One of the slogans of the Games has been: We're ready, are you?

I'm ready. They're not. I manage to get my passes, but information about my sports is not expected back from the printer for a few days. Could I please come back?

The volunteers keep calling me an athlete. I have no idea who they're talking to. I'm just a journalist with a few interesting hobbies.

October 30: I'm ready, already.

I attempt to get information packets for my various sports.

The figure skating and swimming ones are ready, although it's a minor challenge to convince the volunteers that I wasn't already given them when I registered and I really do need them. I'm not just trying to snag extra copies.

The triathlon one isn't ready. Could I please come back?

I head off to discover the Coogee Women's pool.

Australia's lesbians are ballsy, aggressive and sexy. They take up space rather than being squeezed out. A perfect example of this is the Coogee Women's pool, a natural saltwater pool off Coogee beach designated for women and children only. The intention of the planners was that it would be a haven for Muslim and other religious women who will not swim in the presence of men. It has been completely taken over by topless lesbians and is a little slice of heaven because of the amazing view of the beach, the warm salty water that makes for beautiful swimming and the dozens of naked women that surround it. I manage to make it up there twice this week.

October 31: I'm really a skater.

I've been wandering around Sydney in a jetlag daze that is slowly starting to clear which is good because I have to ice skate today.

The organizers of the figure skating have arranged an unofficial practice ice at the rink at Fox Studios, a massive complex that is part mall, part entertainment complex, part filmmaking studio. The rink is small and in a tent which makes the ice a bit hard to keep cold. We're skating in half an inch of water, and since the rink is smaller that most are used to, people keep running into the boards.

I have to confess to feeling a bit intimidated. I don't jump. I barely spin. My forward crossovers are tired, although I blame that on legs that are still suffering because I ran the Chicago marathon just two weeks before. I'm nervous and terrified one of them is going to jump right into me. This is my first figure skating competition ever. I'm a slow swimmer, but I swim at meets all the time. The only time I ever beat anyone is when I swim long distance. But that I'm used to. I will have one minute on the ice in competition, and all eyes will be on me. In swimming, I can honestly say that I don't think anyone's looking. When you're skating, it's just you and the music.

The first time I skate my program, I'm shaking so badly I'm terrified I'm going to fall. The second time is better. It has to be. I have to become comfortable skating in front of a huge audience, which I've done before but only as part of a group number, and I have to become comfortable in front of my fellow skaters who can jump and spin rings around me.

Some of them are national champions in their own countries with stacks of trophies. I broke my wrist in the beginner's class, but slowly I start to feel at home because you wouldn't know about these guys’ trophies until someone else tells you. On the ice, we are all just skaters.

November 1: I'm really a swimmer.

When I signed up to compete in the Games a year and a half ago, I was swimming two or three times a week. My times were dropping, and my stroke was looking good. But a lot can change in a year and a half, and over the past few months preparing for figure skating and training for the Chicago marathon, which was just a couple weeks before, sucked up all of my time. The starts and turns clinic at the Olympic pool was going to be my second time swimming in the past month. The water felt good, and I become convinced that my lack of swim training combined with still not quite having recovered from the marathon would not make that much of a difference. It's not as if I'd been a slacker over the past few months. I had substituted skating and running for swimming. Not television watching. I was still reasonably fit. I could do this.

After the clinic, I went to pick up my bike. Despite the insistence of the planners of the Games that renting a decent bike in Australia was impossible, I was able to rent a bike with no problem, and the shop was full of other overseas competitors doing the same.

November 2: Opening ceremony--the fun begins

According to the spectators, watching the opening ceremony of the Gay Games is an amazing spectacle. The athletes march in. Musicians sing. Dancers dance. Fireworks explode. It's quite the scene.

Here's what it's like as a competitor. You are told to arrive four hours before the actual ceremony, and you are then herded into a side stadium to wait. You have been told that food and drink will be available, but no one has told the one concession stand with only four cashiers, all of whom are in training, that there will be 13,000 of you. They keep running out of food and change. By the time you get to order, all they've got left are meat pies and chocolate bars. You buy whatever they have.

There's a video screen that allows you to see what is going on in the main stadium, but there's no sound. The drag queen in the side stadium with the microphone tells you that you will march through to the best seats in the house.

And so you wait, and nations march in alphabetically one by one.

India and Pakistan decide to walk together. A grand gesture for peace that I suspect may have something to do with Pakistan wanting to jump the queue.

Other teams are waving flags and wearing silly hats. Boston marches in with inflatable lobsters. Cincinnati has inflatable pigs. The Netherlands has inflatable orange crowns.

I've decided that next time I will try to arrange to be a competitor from Antarctica or Albania so I will get to walk into the stadium first. The United States is just too far back in the alphabet.

The United States is called down, and now we're waiting in a darkened hallway until finally we're called. We march past topless women who have been painted blue. Others are red. Some are purple. They are all cheering and smiling and urging us on. They are on next, an aboriginal dance number meant to mark the start of the Games.

We have been waiting for five hours.

I've never before had the opportunity to walk into a stadium full of people cheering for me. Okay, not just me. For me, my teammates, for the fun we are about to have this week. But it's an incredible feeling. We move from the dark to the light and march around the stadium forming an approximate triangle. At the center of the triangle is a cheerleading troupe and large numbers of leather-clad half-nude men and women twirling flags. I am dazzled by the camera flashbulbs. I am overwhelmed by the number of people.

And at the back of my mind, I ask myself: who am I to accept these accolades? Five years ago, I was a 245-pound couch potato who could barely climb a flight of stairs. I've come a long way, but I'm still hardly a serious athlete. I'm usually last. I do a lot of stuff, but I don't do any of it well. I'm not fast. I'm not sleek. I'm not elegant. I am not really an athlete.

Our moment in the spotlight ends. We are promptly marched up to the nosebleed seats, but I can't stay. And I don't go to the opening night party either.

Tomorrow is the triathlon, and I need to get home and get some sleep.